You might already have a number of personally justified reasons to skip Daniel Espinosa’s outer space horror-thriller Life, written by the Deadpool and Zombieland scribe duo Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. For starters, the general lack of interest in it might be weighing down your own willingness (Forbes’ Scott Mendelson reports the movie only made a measly $12.2 million weekend debut.) Or its overall “meh” critical reception – with an underwhelming 66% score on Rotten Tomatoes (just 46% when you look at Top Critics only) – might be the deal-breaker for you. Or perhaps you have room for one and only one set-in-space horror per year inside of you, which you already reserved for Ridley Scott’s upcoming Alien: Covenant.
Due respect, you will be missing out, and not just on its first-rate and diverse ensemble cast, consisting of Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ariyon Bakare and Olga Dihovichnaya. After watching it twice (yes, you heard me), I remain in awe of the economy and integrity on display in Life towards creating a first-rate sci-fi horror that is at once familiar (OK, perhaps a bit too familiar with Alien generously signposted on every corner) and breathtaking. But that’s not all. Life also somehow seems to have heard my secret wishes and recent frustrations with the genre, and answered them one by one. Here, I count the reasons why I welcome Life breathing some new (or perhaps old?) life into the genre.
1. It’s a truly dangerous-feeling survival story.
It was just two years ago that I settled in to see Ridley Scott’s The Martian at New York Film Festival, just a couple of weeks following its exuberant Toronto Film Festival reception. Something felt off for me. I didn’t necessarily get consumed by the survival story or rescue mission at the film’s center. I wondered whether I wasn’t plugged in enough or was simply too tired. But then I watched it again and same thing happened. I found I was never sold on the high-stakes danger the Martian potato farmer Mark Watney (Matt Damon) was in. I liked the film just fine (hey, a group of smart NASA scientists solving problem after problem to bring one of their own back home is not too shabby a story). But I also desperately wished for a film a bit less cheery and a little more frightening. I realized I missed the uncooperative hostility of space in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. And I found exactly that in Life. Sure, it’s a bit paint-by-numbers: you know the crewmembers will all be goners from the early moments. But the script smartly enriches the film’s predictable turns, giving the crew just enough things to work with when everything else seems to be working against them. The conditions in Life couldn’t be any more hostile – they somehow feel brand-new, utterly exciting and deeply scary.
2. It’s a lean film.
Thankfully, this is not another Prometheus with layers and layers of plot points, confused timelines and a crowded field of players. Don’t expect a lengthy back story, overly convoluted breadcrumbs for future installments or dragged out plotting in Life. Its chief story – 6 astronauts/scientists study and battle a single-cell life form discovered on Mars – arrives almost immediately and builds and deepens at a swift tempo. That Life is stripped of bells and whistles isn’t a liability that dumbs the film down in any way. On the contrary, this approach works to the film’s advantage, ultimately putting forth a sophisticated, minimalist thriller (sorely missed in this genre) with impressive long takes and camerawork, and an elegantly designed nightmarish alien. Espinoza proves he is a resourceful storyteller who knows how to achieve more with less.
3. The crewmembers in Life are treated with dignity.
Life never loses sight of the fact that we are in the presence of crewmembers that are human first and foremost and are more than capable of making humanly mistakes, like Hugh Derry (Bakare) does at the lab in which he studies the alien form as the expert in his field. But the film also never abandons the fact that these people are scientists and that science is what drives their motivations, curiosities and inner battles. Remember how in Prometheus astronauts inexplicably remove their space helmets at the slightest sign of breathable air outside of their spacecraft? That was the moment that the film lost me by shamelessly betraying the crew’s scientific priorities and instincts to take a plotting shortcut. Life takes a different approach altogether. In one scene, we get to hear Miranda (Ferguson) voice her shame around hating Calvin (the alien). She knows it’s a scientific conflict to breed such feelings. In repeated instances, we observe as crewmembers put each other’s safety and their task’s future ahead of their own interests (or even lives). It’s just one of the many ways Life keeps its viewer engaged and its plot believable.
4. Its claustrophobia is suffocating.
You only know what claustrophobia really means if you have it – it’s not just mere discomfort of being in closed spaces. Life captures that panicky sensation of running out of breath and getting buried alive masterfully. From its early moments, the long camera takes (pay special attention to the opening) that follow the scientists around the spacecraft and the intimate close-ups on their faces start to slowly cut the viewers’ oxygen supply by encapsulating them into this fast-moving world. There is especially one particular death which involves a liquid-filled space helmet that will be the worst nightmare of any individual with the slightest degree of claustrophobia. Thankfully I was prepared for it during my second watch and mostly closed my eyes through it. Mostly.
5. The ending is a stunner.
OK, perhaps you can sniff it from a mile away. But it was still nice to be treated to a fiendishly ruthless ending devoid of hope. Sure, the finale is in part bait for potential future installments (if this one does well, which doesn’t quite seem to be the case currently.) But it’s also a bit more than that. It’s a reminder that we don’t always need to be spoon-fed a hopeful resolution to be entertained in a horror/thriller. In that regard, Life kicks it refreshingly old school.